Date: May 31, 2023
Attorney and father shocked at verdict in case lacking evidence.
By Our Pakistan Correspondent
Noman Masih. (Morning Star News via defense counsel)
LAHORE, Pakistan (Morning Star News) – A court in Bahawalpur, Pakistan on Tuesday (May 30) handed the death penalty to a 22-year-old Christian on an unsubstantiated conviction under the country’s blasphemy laws, sources said.
Lazar Allah Rakha, attorney for Noman Masih, said that the sessions court announced its verdict at the New Central Jail Bahawalpur, in Punjab Province, though the prosecution failed to provide evidence of the blasphemy charge against him.
“I’m extremely disappointed by the conviction, because there was absolutely no case,” Rakha told Morning Star News. “There was no proof against Noman, and none of the witnesses produced by police could corroborate the blasphemy allegation against him.”
Masih’s trial concluded in January, but the court repeatedly postponed the verdict on various pretexts, Rakha said. Masih was convicted of blaspheming Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, which carries a mandatory death sentence under Section 295-C of Pakistan’s blasphemy statutes.
“Despite so many contradictions in the case, I’m at a loss to understand why Bahawalpur Additional Sessions Judge Muhammad Hafeez Ur Rehman sentenced Noman instead of acquitting him,” Rakha said. “This is murder of justice.”
The attorney said the court would issue its written verdict in a day or two, after which he would file an appeal against the conviction with the Bahawalpur Bench of the Lahore High Court within the mandatory seven-day period.
Regarding the status of a separate blasphemy case against Noman in Bahawalnagar, Rakha said the trial had concluded and the court was expected to announce a verdict in June.
Noman’s father, sanitation worker Asghar Masih, said the family was shocked by the verdict, but that “we are standing firm in our faith and looking to God for Noman’s freedom.”
He said that contrary to the police’s claim that officers had arrested Noman on July 1, 2019, his son was arrested in a late-night raid hours after the young man’s cousin, Sunny Waqas, was taken into custody 174 kilometers (108 miles) away by Bahawalnagar police on a blasphemy charge on June 29, 2019.
“The allegations in both First Information Reports (FIRs) are baseless,” Asghar Masih told Morning Star News. “Noman was sleeping in the house when he was arrested, but the police have alleged that he was in a park showing blasphemous images to 9-10 people at 3:30 a.m.”
The past four years have been extremely difficult for the family, both emotionally and financially, he said.
“Noman’s mother and I yearn for him every day,” he told Morning Star News. “Our hearts broke today when our counsel informed us about the death verdict. But our faith in Christ has not waivered, and we trust God that He will rescue us from this suffering.”
The family is in dire need of prayer and financial support, he said.
“I work as a shop cleaner and can barely manage the household expenses in my meager salary,” he said. “Ever since Noman’s incarceration, I’ve amassed a huge debt, because I’ve to provide for his jail expenses on every visit.
A member of the Anglican Church of Pakistan, Asghar Masih said he was grateful to Rakha for standing beside them and working to win freedom for the two young men.
“However, this mounting debt fueled by inflation is exacerbating our miseries,” he said. “We appeal to our church and community leaders to help us in this difficult time.”
Noman Masih and Waqas were arrested after police in their respective districts, citing “secret information,” filed cases of against them under Section 295-C of the harsh blasphemy statutes.
In FIR No. 359/19, trainee Sub-Inspector Fraz Ahmed of the Faqirwali Police Station in Bahawalnagar claimed he received “secret information” that Waqas had printed blasphemous sketches of Islam’s prophet and was carrying them in a black bag to show other people.
According to the complainant, upon questioning, Waqas told police that his cousin Noman had shared the alleged sacrilegious images with him on WhatsApp, the FIR states. Waqas was then taken into custody on June 29, 2019 and charged with blasphemy.
His cousin was arrested on July 1, 2019, by Bahawalpur police. FIR No. 366/19, registered by the Baghdadul Jadeed Police Station on the complaint of Sub-Inspector Muhammad Arshad Nadeem, states that Nadeem received “secret information” that Noman Masih was sitting in a public park at 3:30 a.m. with nine or 10 people and was showing them blasphemous images on his phone.
Earlier this year, on Jan. 17, the LHC Bahawalpur Bench granted bail to Waqas, but he was not freed until Feb. 3 due to difficulties in raising the unprecedented, exorbitant bail bond of 4 million rupees (US$13,994).
The maximum allowable amount for bail under Section 295-C is 500,000 rupees (US$1,750).
“It seems the judge wanted to make Waqas’s release impossible by setting the value of the bonds to 4 million rupees,” attorney Aneeqa Maria of The Voice Society told Morning Star News at that time. Maria’s organization was supporting Rakha as defense counsel in the two cases.
The judge granted bail because the trial against Waqas had not concluded within the mandatory two-year period, Maria said.
Courts routinely dismiss bail appeals of blasphemy suspects, especially when charges are made under Section 295-C, where the punishment is death, a non-bailable offense.
There are instances where suspects in non-bailable offenses, including murder, can be granted bail under the third proviso of Section 497 (1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure. Section 497 states that if suspects have not been formally charged, the trial has not been concluded within two years and the delay is not due to the accused, they should be granted bail.
Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, up from eighth the previous year.